Thursday, November 27, 2008

Little Big Planet: UGC vs. IP

I've been meaning to write about this for quite some time, but thought I'd wait to see if the story would initiate a more widespread discussion first. The quirky-cute and much anticipated UGC-focused PS3 game Little Big Planet has now been on the market for about a month (it's currently #13 on VGChartz, which is awesome for a PS3 game), and by all accounts players are busying themselves making their own levels with the game's innovative player-generated-level design feature (you can check out a demo here, or a more detailed walkthrough of the design process here). Of course, it was only a matter of time before questions and conflicts began to arise around the ever sticky issue of IP...What happens when players integrate images and themes taken from other cultural texts into their UGC levels? And, perhaps more importantly, who owns the IP rights over the levels that players create?

In terms of who owns the copyright over players' original UGC creations, the issue was discussed within various forums when the game first came out in October. Although Sony originally indicated that players would be able to sell their creations - implying that players would retain IP ownership over the levels they create - more recent changes in the TOS seem to contradict this. For example, as I Have the Princess points out:
Sony have recently made changes to their PSN terms of use, notably adding terms and conditions for user generated content. No doubt, this is a legal precaution leading up to the release of LittleBigPlanet, obviously there needs to be guidelines to allow Sony to define and take action again inappropriate content.

But what really got my attention were some of the rights Sony have concerning your generated content…

You also authorise us [Sony] and our affiliated companies, without payment to you, to license, sell and otherwise commercially exploit your User Material
The document continues on outlining that Sony may sell subscription services or gain advertising revenue related to your content. Certainly sounds a far cry from what we’ve heard earlier about selected users being able to set a price and sell their levels, but I guess we’ll know soon enough how this will effect entrepreneurial users.

Similar concerns were voiced over at GameCulture blog, which argued: three weeks, we could all be working for Sony, crafting and sharing levels that Sony owns outright. Perhaps some of those levels will end up being packaged as downloadable content, much the same way that fruit of some of LittleBigPlanet's best beta players is being packaged with the official release. [...] The revenue we generate for Sony by building their content for them is just part of the genius of their business model.

But how does the equation change as user-generated content becomes less a matter of remixing existing intellectual property by 'modding' a game and starts to look more like the creation of original work? What happens when the systems game developers build for us are less games than platforms for the creation of new games?

Since these earlier posts, the only real development has been in relation to copyright infringement within player-designed levels, some of which have been deleted/removed by Sony without warning, much to the chagrin of the players (read this post over at Joystiq for some good background and legal discussion). A bit of a controversy (and some hints of resistance) has erupted among players, but it also looks like Sony is still trying to decide how it will approach these issues. For example, as GameIndustry reported:
While one of the biggest draws for the PlayStation 3 game is the ability for users to create their own content, such freedom is providing a headache for the developer faced with moderating submissions for download.

Simply removing the offending content has sparked some complaints from the fan community, but Media Molecule has said that it is working on a solution to better communicate with users as to why levels have been deleted.

"We're reviewing the moderating system currently to provide better feedback on why levels are moderated," said a spokesperson for publisher Sony on the official forums.

"Primarily, any level that is reported using the grief tool will be checked over by a moderator, at which point they'll examine it in line with the EULA (End User Licence Agreement). If a level is found to be in violation of the EULA it will be moderated and you'll receive a message to that effect," explains the post.

"We're moving towards a system where additional information is given, however for the time being if you don't want your level moderating avoid anything unsuitable for users of all ages and copyright content."

Levels featuring content from games and other media including Metal Gear Solid, The Legend of Zelda, Batman and Scrubs have all been removed from the servers – with users complaining that they have spent hours creating content and have no back-up of their work.

Sony has said it hopes to inform users how they can tweak their creations to make them suitable, rather than be forced to delete the entire level.

For a good description of the delicate balancing act that Sony is facing with this, check out Izzy Neis' post from a couple of weeks ago. It would be more than awesome to see Sony adopt a user-centered approach to its TOS and copyright policies, one which better reflects the user participation and importance of UGC in the game's design...Not to mention its business model (see GameIndustry excerpt above). In the meantime, however, the vague threat of corporate copyright appears to be taking precedence, trampling over fair use and players' ability to engage creatively and critically with their culture.

Not that this is surprising, of course - as we've seen in various other games and digital cultural practices (mash-ups, machinima, etc.), a big part of UGC is the appropriation, integration and subversion of popular commercial cultural texts. And the industry as a whole is much more easily swayed by concerns about protecting corporate copyright than it has by individuals/players' potential IP and fair use rights. Then again, although Sony has taken some levels down for fear of copyright infringement, they also seem to be trying to figure out a way to moderate and manage UGC in a way that still fosters user feedback and player creativity. It's a fascinating case study in the problematic position of user-centered design within an impossibly stringent corporate copyright regime. It's also a great example of the social construction of technology, as the company attempts to respond to legal pressures and player demands/criticisms (despite an adequately developed policy on either copyright or player rights) in its shaping and management of a new technological/cultural form.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Alice in Promoland

Just a little "head's up" today on a new Disney marketing initiative that's slowly starting to gain momentum. You've probably heard all about the upcoming Disney/Tim Burton live action/CGI adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (which you can read more about here and here). The film won't hit theaters until 2010, but Disney is already slowly building buzz around the property's rebranding. While the original animated Alice in Wonderland is definitely a beloved Disney classic, it isn't exactly associated with the kind of cross-promotional hoopla that the company has perfected with properties like Monsters Inc. and the Disney Princesses. So it's not surprising to see that the company is using Burton's re-imagining of Lewis Carrol's original tale as an opportunity to give the property a promo-focused face lift.

Preliminary evidence of this campaign emerged this past September, with the (re?-)release of a new hardcover Walt Disney's Alice in Wonderland book, illustrated by Mary Blair (*****Update: After just a tiny bit more hunting online, I found out that Blair was actually a longtime illustrator and animator at Disney, and was the one who produced the original concept artwork for Alice in Wonderland in 1951!!! Which explains the dark undertones of the Disney classic animated film, while also supplying a great historical/nostalgic anchor for the new adaptation. Thank you Wikipedia******). Blair's illustrations also happen to do a fantastic job of bridging the original Disney animated film's characters and style (which were of course ultimately much more cartoon-y and bright than Blair's concept art) with the darker and more gothic Tim Burton aesthetic. While it's too early to start identifying consistencies between the book and upcoming movie, I couldn't help but notice that the Mad Hatter in both versions now has wild red hair. I'm not sure how the stories themselves will compare (Burton seems to be staying truer to the Lewis Carroll story), but my interest is definitely piqued. I'm also wondering at the unlikely coincidence of Sesame Street's newest direct-to-DVD project Abby in Wonderland, which was also released in September.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Club Penguin and Social Sites for Kids

As I write up my thesis chapter on kids' virtual bedroom culture, I've gone back to dedicating large portions of my days to inhabiting and revisiting my case study worlds - BarbieGirls, Club Penguin, et al. I've found myself spending a particularly significant amount of time in Club Penguin - not only is the site in the midst of launching a new tie-in toy line and Nintendo DS crossover - but a number of very interesting events and new developments have taken place there of late, which I've found important to make note of. The snow-in at the dojo...the amazing community celebrations that occured around the site's 3rd anniversary and then around Halloween. The ongoing obsession with ninja sightings. All great stuff when it comes to studying emergent play vs. viral marketing in kids' virtual worlds. Anyhow, perhaps it's because I've been spending so much time there lately (in addition to the hours and hours and hours I've logged in this and my other case study sites over the past two years) that I was particularly disturbed by this new piece of alarmist nay-saying that featured in the Vancouver Sun over the weekend. It seems that a newly launched kids' online safety watchdog group in the US called CyberSafeNation has found some evidence that some kids' sites aren't doing enough when it comes to chat moderation and player monitoring. Unfortunately, instead of revealing their evidence and naming some specific examples of risky sites, they've decided to go after kids' virtual worlds in general...with Club Penguin positioned right at the centre of their campaign to have kids' access to online communication shut down altogether.

The folks over at Club Penguin have already responded to the accusation, pointing to the fact that their moderation system does effectively block out the types of inappropriate talk that CyberSafeNation has found in other sites. They also point out that they offer a SafeChat system that does already limit players to a selection of pre-approved and extremely G-rated chat sentences. And I have to say, that even after all this time, my position on Club Penguin's above-average safety and highly effective moderation system hasn't changed. Having now logged well over 80 hours in the site, observing kids' interactions and making note of any type of deviance, the vast vast majority of which is innocuous, I've never seen or heard anything that remotely resembles CyberSafeNation's description of "kiddie porn". That said, the same is certainly NOT the case for some of the other sites I've examined...Nicktropolis has basically turned into a cruising bar, and a segment of the BarbieGirls community is as obsessed with "dates" as it is with clothes. Although both sites have arbitrarily restricted players' ability to engage in critical discussion with one another, they have been amazingly lax when it comes to monitoring chat for inappropriate themes and conversations (which often take place in full view of other players) or at identifying potentially risky workarounds (the article mentions spelling out phone numbers to get around bans on putting in the numbers directly...the sites I'm studying haven't missed anything THAT obvious, but there are plenty of other, more subtle examples). CyberSafeNation's findings are reflective of a number of sites geared to kids that currently attract enormous population bases and expose/enable players to various degrees of inappropriate talk, propositions and behaviours (of course, I also advocate taking a much more nuanced and less alarmist approach to kids' "inappropriate" behaviours - but that's a topic for another day).

So why pick on Club Penguin? Well, the goal here is obviously to create a whole lot of widespread worry and panic about kids' virtual worlds, and since Club Penguin is so massively popular among kids (not to mention the high visibility and media-panic-responsiveness of parent company Disney) it's an easy target. What frustrates me most about all this is that I wholeheartedly support the need for a more concerted and widespread public debate around kids' VW's. We SHOULD be talking about the ways in which they're regulated (or not), designed, manipulated for commercial gain, but we also need to consider the ways in which these sites are used to construct meaningful communities of interest, provide a much needed space for social and peer group play, allow for player creativity and innovation, and give kids an opportunity to express themselves in a public forum. If previous digital games/media/culture debates have taught us anything, it's that polarized, essentializing and misinformed dichotomies do little more than kill legitimate debate about these issues and developments. An "all or nothing approach" that claims banning kids from online communication as the only acceptable solution not only accentuates (and very likely exaggerates) the risk while completely ignoring the benefits of virtual worlds and other types of CMC, but it also dismisses the importance and legitimacy of children's rights to free expression and to create their own cultural spaces and discourses. Let's not punish kids for our systemmatic failure to protect and promote their rights, interests and safety online. We've got a lot of options here beyond banning kids outright from a significant new form of culture and human communication...better (or even just 'some') regulation, corporate accountability and transparency, and the establishment of support systems that facilitate parental involvement are all viable possibilities that have never been given serious consideration.

It's also far time that advocacy groups, politicians and the press stop making sweeping and potentially dangerous generalizations about various forms of media and technology. Groups like CyberSafeNation can provide an absolutely invaluable (public) service by acting as watchdog and holding corporations accountable, but only if their findings are reported fairly and accurately. If certain games are more dangerous than others, isn't it important to report on precisely WHICH games are high risk and have poor moderation systems? Rather than stir up some potentially unrelated panic about a more popular site? I'm deeply disturbed by the lack of responsibility shown in the Vancouver Sun article...obviously the examples they cite aren't ones that were actually found in Club Penguin, but they were found somewhere. Why did feeding panic about Club Penguin take priority over protecting the kids who actually use the sites where the risky behaviours were recorded by CyberSafeNation? And how are parents supposed to be able to make informed choices without specific, timely and accurate information?